Skywatcher Snaps Picture of Top Secret U.S. Air Force X-37B Space Plane

A skywatcher from the Netherlands has managed to capture a photograph of a top secret U.S. Air Force space plane using commercially available astronomical equipment.

The robotic aircraft, known as the X-37B, was built by aerospace manufacturer Boeing and resembles the well-known space shuttle in shape, although it is much smaller, measuring just 29-feet long with a wingspan of 9.6 feet, space.com reported.

Most of the activities of the X-37B—described as an Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV)—are classified by the Air Force so it is not clear what tasks the space plane was performing when Ralf Vandebergh snapped a picture of it.

However, we do know that X-37B missions fall under the management of the 3rd Space Experimentation Squadron based at Schriever Air Force Base in Colorado—the air force's premier organisation for "conducting space-based demonstrations an experiments."

The X-37B's latest mission—which began in September 2017—is called OTV-5 given that it is the fifth for the space plane.

Vandebergh said that he had been trying to track down the X-37B for months and was able to visually identify it in May this year, although he wasn't able to capture a picture straight away.

"When I tried to observe it again mid June, it didn't meet the predicted time and path," Vandebergh wrote in a description of his image on SpaceWeatherGallery.com. "It turned out to have maneuvered to another orbit. Thanks to the amateur satellite observers network, it was rapidly found in orbit again and I was able to take some images on June 30 and July 2. This most recent pass was almost overhead."

Vandebergh said that he used a 10 inch F/4,8 aperture Newtonian telescope fitted with an Astrolumina ALccd 5L-11 mono CMOS camera to take the picture. "The images were taken with pretty ordinary equipment for amateur astronomy with some self-made improvements," he told Newsweek.

"The telescope is a reflecting telescope of the Newtonian principle with an aperture of 10 inch. Even the mount is pretty common. However, it takes some small modifications in hardware and in use like assisting lights to illuminate the background of the tracking scope—otherwise you would not see the crosshairs in the dark—and the telescope mount must be pointed in a specific position to be able to track the object. For the illumination, I used an easy bicycle rear light."

Vandebergh said that the space plane was a difficult object to photograph in many respects, because of its small size.

"The size of the X-37B is only a fraction of the manned space shuttle, you cannot even cover a wing of the space shuttle with an X-37B," he said. "Additionally you have the very high angular speed. Because its orbit is only a little more than 300 kilometers (186 miles) above the surface of the Earth, it moves at a very high speed across the sky.

"This makes it hard to track, especially if you are tracking fully manually, like I do," Vandebergh said. "But I had years of experience in tracking different objects in different orbits, ranging from the International Space Station to satellites that are just about to dive into the Earth's atmosphere."

There are at least two Boeing X-37Bs in existence, both of which reportedly cost around one billion dollars to build, The National Interest reported. Essentially, they function as a kind of reusable satellite that are intended to conduct much shorter missions than normal satellites.

This article was updated to include additional comments from Ralf Vandebergh.

Boeing X-37B
The X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle sits on the runway during post-landing operations Dec. 3, 2010, at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. U.S. Air Force photo/Michael Stonecypher/DoD/Corbis via Getty Images)
Skywatcher Snaps Picture of Top Secret U.S. Air Force X-37B Space Plane | Tech & Science